In a pair of major victories for the gay rights movement, the Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that married same-sex couples were entitled to federal benefits and, by declining to decide a case from California, effectively allowed same-sex marriages there.
The rulings leave in place laws banning same-sex marriage around the nation, and the court declined to say whether there was a constitutional right to such unions. But in clearing the way for same-sex marriage in California, the nation’s most populous state, the court effectively increased to 13 the number of states that allow it.
The decisions will only intensify the fast-moving debate over same-sex marriage, and the clash in the Supreme Court reflected the one around the nation. In the hushed courtroom Wednesday morning, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy announced the majority opinion striking down the federal law in a stately tone that indicated he was delivering a civil rights landmark. After he finished, he sat stonily, looking straight ahead, while Justice Antonin Scalia unleashed a cutting dissent.
The vote in the case striking down the federal Defense of Marriage Act was 5 to 4, and Justice Kennedy was joined by the four members of the court’s liberal wing. The ruling will immediately extend many benefits to couples married in the states that allow such unions, and it will allow the Obama administration to broaden other benefits through executive actions.
The case concerning California’s ban on same-sex marriage, enacted in a ballot initiative known as Proposition 8, was decided on technical grounds, with the majority saying that it was not properly before the court. Because officials in California had declined to appeal a trial court’s decision against them, and because the proponents of the ban were not entitled to step into the state’s shoes to appeal the decision, the court said, it was powerless to issue a decision. That left in place a trial court victory for two same-sex couples who had sought to marry.
The vote in the California case was also 5 to 4, but with a different and very unusual alignment of justices. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion, and he was joined by Justice Scalia and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan. The four dissenters — Justice Kennedy and Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel A. Alito Jr. and Sonia Sotomayor — said they would have decided whether Proposition 8 was constitutional. But they did not say how they would have voted.
The case on the federal law was the more important one from a legal perspective, setting the terms for challenges to state bans on same-sex marriage. Justice Kennedy’s reasoning, as Justice Scalia noted at length in dissent, could just as easily have applied to state laws as to the federal one.
“The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and injure those whom the state, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity,” Justice Kennedy wrote. “By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
He said the law was motivated by a desire to harm gay and lesbian couples and their families, demeaning the “moral and sexual choices” of such couples and humiliating “tens of thousands of children now being raised by same-sex couples.”
The constitutional basis for striking down the law was not entirely clear, as it had elements of federalism, equal protection and due process. Justice Kennedy said the law’s basic flaw was in its “deprivation of the liberty of the person protected by the Fifth Amendment.”
He added that the ruling applied only to marriages from states that allowed gay and lesbian couples to wed.
Dissenting from the bench, Justice Scalia said that that declaration took “real cheek.
“By formally declaring anyone opposed to same-sex marriage an enemy of human decency,” Justice Scalia said, “the majority arms well every challenger to a state law restricting marriage to its traditional definition.”
The court’s four more conservative justices — Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito — issued three dissents between them in the case on the federal law. They differed in some of their rationales and predictions, but all agreed that the law, which passed with bipartisan support and which President Bill Clinton signed, was constitutional.
Chief Justice Roberts said that he “would not tar the political branches with the brush of bigotry,” and that “interests in uniformity and stability amply justified Congress’s decision” in 1996, which, “at that point, had been adopted by every state in our nation, and every nation in the world.”
Justice Scalia wrote that the majority had simplified a complex question that should be decided democratically and not by judges.
“In the majority’s telling, this story is black-and-white: Hate your neighbor or come along with us,” he wrote. “The truth is more complicated.”
The decision will raise a series of major questions for the Obama administration about how to overhaul federal programs involving marriage. Justice Scalia noted some of the difficult problems created by the decision in the case,United States v. Windsor, No. 12-307. “Imagine a pair of women who marry in Albany and then move to Alabama,” he wrote. May they file a joint federal income tax return? Does the answer turn on where they were married or where they live?
The case before the justices concerned two New York City women, Edith Windsor and Thea Clara Spyer, who married in 2007 in Canada. Ms. Spyer died in 2009, and Ms. Windsor inherited her property. The federal law did not allow the Internal Revenue Service to treat Ms. Windsor as a surviving spouse, and she faced a tax bill of about $360,000, which a spouse in an opposite-sex marriage would not have had to pay. Ms. Windsor sued, and last year the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, in New York, struck down the federal law.
The Obama administration continued to enforce the federal law, but it urged the justices to strike it down as unconstitutional, prompting House Republicans to step in to defend it. The justices differed on whether the case’s odd procedural posture deprived the court of jurisdiction, much as the machinations in the Proposition 8 case had.
Justice Kennedy said that the federal government retained a stake in the case, and that the lawyers for House Republicans had made “a sharp adversarial presentation of the issues.” Because the “rights and privileges of hundreds of thousands of persons” were at stake, Justice Kennedy wrote, it was urgent that the court act.
In the California case, Chief Justice Roberts said that the failure of state officials to appeal the trial court decision against them was the end of the matter. Proponents of Proposition 8 had suffered only a “generalized grievance” when the ballot initiative they had sponsored was struck down, the chief justice wrote, and they were not entitled to represent the state’s interests on appeal. The ruling in the case, Hollingsworth v. Perry, No. 12-144, erased the appeals court’s decision striking down Proposition 8.
As a formal matter, the decision sent the case back to the appeals court, the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco, “with instructions to dismiss the appeal for lack of jurisdiction.” That means the trial court’s decision stands.
Lawyers for the two sides had different interpretations of the legal consequences of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Supporters of Proposition 8 said it remained the law in California because the trial court’s decision applied only to the two couples who had challenged the law. The lawyers who filed the challenge to Proposition 8, Theodore B. Olson and David Boies, said the trial court decision was binding in all of California.
As a practical matter, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, instructed officials to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples as soon as the Ninth Circuit acts.
If California becomes the 13th state to allow same-sex marriage, about 30 percent of Americans will live in jurisdictions where it is legal. Until last year, when four states voted in favor of same-sex marriage at the ballot box, it had failed — or bans on it had succeeded — every time it had appeared on a statewide initiative.
Guide to the Supreme Court Decision on the Defense of Marriage Act